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Contributors:Lindsey Macdonald.
Summary:

This set of OWL resources aims to help engineering instructors and TAs create and assess a variety of short, low-overhead writing exercises for use in engineering courses. The primary focus here is on “writing to learn” assignments, which leverage writing to improve students’ conceptual understanding of technical concepts.

Writing exercises can be used in engineering courses to promote the deeper learning of technical material and build students’ writing skills. Writing in engineering courses gives students practice in articulating engineering concepts to different audiences and in engaging with technical communication genres. However, engineering instructors and TAs often struggle to incorporate writing into engineering classes due to a variety of challenges, including class size and the amount of time it takes to grade writing assignments. Additionally, the teaching of writing is an entire discipline of study with its own theories and practices that may not be accessible to engineering educators.

Why include writing in engineering courses?

Writing assignments incorporated into engineering courses allow students to both “write to learn” and “learn to write.” The concepts “writing to learn” and “learning to write” are integral to the study of how writing is used in all disciplines across the university. Writing studies scholars call this “writing across curriculum” because it promotes writing instruction in courses where students may not expect to encounter writing assignments and courses that students take throughout their undergraduate education.

When students write to learn, they are actively engaging with material by thinking through and articulating important concepts and issues addressed within the course. Writing in an engineering course will not only help students learn subject matter, but also enable them to synthesize and organize their thoughts to better retain information learned in the course. Furthermore, writing to learn enables students to make connections and understand the importance of the course beyond the classroom.

Assignments that emphasize “writing to learn” serve several purposes:

Although the assignments provided in this resource primarily focus on “writing to learn,” students will also gain skills associated with “learning to write,” such as

For more information on “writing to learn” and “learning to write,” consult the OWL’s “Writing Across the Curriculum: An Introduction”

You might also check out the OWL vidcast, "An Introduction to Writing Across the Curriculum" on the Purdue OWL's YouTube Channel.

Using Bloom’s Taxonomy to Create Writing Prompts

This page provides examples for how to modify a standard end-of-chapter homework problem to craft write-to-learn exercises at all levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, a framework for classifying educational learning objectives.

Types of Writing Assignments

This page provides an overview and description of many types of writing assignments suitable for use in engineering homework and class activities.

Writing Tips for Students

This page provides instructors with quick tips that they can give their students to help them navigate the writing process, from the pre-writing to revising stages. 

Assessment and Feedback of Engineering Writing Assignments

These resources describe easy-to-implement grading and feedback schemes for engineering writing assignments. Grading is one of the key obstacles to implementing writing in engineering courses as class sizes may be large, or instructors/TAs may teach multiple sections. Therefore, this section also provides techniques for quicker streamlined grading practices. 

This work was supported by a Research Initiation Grant in Engineering Education (RIGEE) grant from the Engineering Education and Centers (EEC) Division of the National Science Foundation (grant no. EEC-1340491).  Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Contributors:Lindsey Macdonald.
Summary:

This set of OWL resources aims to help engineering instructors and TAs create and assess a variety of short, low-overhead writing exercises for use in engineering courses. The primary focus here is on “writing to learn” assignments, which leverage writing to improve students’ conceptual understanding of technical concepts.

Writing exercises can be used in engineering courses to promote the deeper learning of technical material and build students’ writing skills. Writing in engineering courses gives students practice in articulating engineering concepts to different audiences and in engaging with technical communication genres. However, engineering instructors and TAs often struggle to incorporate writing into engineering classes due to a variety of challenges, including class size and the amount of time it takes to grade writing assignments. Additionally, the teaching of writing is an entire discipline of study with its own theories and practices that may not be accessible to engineering educators.

Using Bloom’s Taxonomy

Bloom’s Taxonomy is a framework for identifying and organizing what educators want students to learn from a given instructional activity. It was originally conceived to create common learning objectives across courses and departments and to provide educators with standardized language to use when framing learning goals for curricula and comprehensive examinations. Now, Bloom’s taxonomy can be used as a potential model for framing educational objectives within a course and as a guide to structure activities and assessment based on learning goals. 

Bloom’s Taxonomy is useful for framing writing instruction in engineering courses as it helps instructors and TAs create assignments that will enhance students’ understanding of important concepts and ideas and enable them to meet the key course objectives. 

Objectives created using Bloom’s Taxonomy are based on two dimensions: 1) knowledge and 2) cognitive processes. The knowledge dimension indicates the type of content or subject matter that students will work with, while the cognitive processes dimension dictates what students will have to do with that content (the tasks they will have to perform as they think and write). Below we provide two lists that break down the knowledge and cognitive process dimensions and then a table that shows how the two dimensions work together:

Knowledge CP Dimensions Table

Instructors and TAs can use the table shown above to create prompts that ask students to perform specific writing tasks that address different types of content or knowledge taught within the course.

When writing exercises are used in an engineering course, any standard calculation-based homework problem can be leveraged to target different levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Below we provide one example, taken from a Purdue fluid mechanics course, which illustrates this expansion with the use of writing prompts:

Bloom Taxonomy Prompts

You’ll notice that all the prompts that follow use one of the tasks from the cognitive processes dimension list, and then identify specific content (knowledge) that students should engage with.  

Contributors:Lindsey Macdonald.
Summary:

This set of OWL resources aims to help engineering instructors and TAs create and assess a variety of short, low-overhead writing exercises for use in engineering courses. The primary focus here is on “writing to learn” assignments, which leverage writing to improve students’ conceptual understanding of technical concepts.

Writing exercises can be used in engineering courses to promote the deeper learning of technical material and build students’ writing skills. Writing in engineering courses gives students practice in articulating engineering concepts to different audiences and in engaging with technical communication genres. However, engineering instructors and TAs often struggle to incorporate writing into engineering classes due to a variety of challenges, including class size and the amount of time it takes to grade writing assignments. Additionally, the teaching of writing is an entire discipline of study with its own theories and practices that may not be accessible to engineering educators.

Types of writing assignments for engineering courses

Writing assignments in engineering courses can take many forms, ranging from a couple of sentences of in-class writing to formal reports.

Conceptual Writing 

Ask students to write about technical definitions, assumptions, or terminology. They can rephrase easily found definitions and assumptions in their own words, which allows them to articulate basic knowledge that they have learned in the course.

Explain-a-Problem 

Take an existing “calculator problem” and have students explain their answers. The format of their explanations can range from a few clarifying sentences to a solution manual-type description. This is the simplest type of writing question to apply, and it dovetails perfectly with already-developed homework questions.

How Stuff Works 

Ask students to use newly-learned concepts and terminology in an explanation of how something works in the real world. This question forces students to apply new concepts and equations to an actual situation.

Real-world Example 

Advise students to seek out and explain a real-world example of a concept in action. This type of writing prompt is great at promoting student appreciation for the real-world importance of what they are learning.

Design-a-Problem 

Assign students to design their own homework problem and write a detailed solution to that problem. This approach lets students be creative and encourages deep understanding of technical concepts and procedures.

Open-ended Design

Challenge students to design a device or solution associated with a stated design objective. The writing component of the assignment lies in the explanation of the design. This writing task allows students to create their own design and further engage with technical concepts and procedures as they explain how their design works.

 

 

Contributors:Lindsey Macdonald.
Summary:

This set of OWL resources aims to help engineering instructors and TAs create and assess a variety of short, low-overhead writing exercises for use in engineering courses. The primary focus here is on “writing to learn” assignments, which leverage writing to improve students’ conceptual understanding of technical concepts.

Writing exercises can be used in engineering courses to promote the deeper learning of technical material and build students’ writing skills. Writing in engineering courses gives students practice in articulating engineering concepts to different audiences and in engaging with technical communication genres. However, engineering instructors and TAs often struggle to incorporate writing into engineering classes due to a variety of challenges, including class size and the amount of time it takes to grade writing assignments. Additionally, the teaching of writing is an entire discipline of study with its own theories and practices that may not be accessible to engineering educators.

Conceptual Writing Prompts

Description: Conceptual writing prompts ask students about technical definitions, assumptions, or terminology. Students should be asked to rephrase easily-found definitions and assumptions in their own words. 

When useful: Conceptual writing prompts are useful to build student familiarity and confidence with newly-learned technical terms and concepts.

Audience considerations: Instructors or TAs might ask students to write definitions for a lay audience who are not familiar with technical terminology, or write as if the students were explaining the definition to a fellow classmate who is having trouble in the course. Students could also conceive of these definitions as they might appear in a textbook, a wiki, or in an online forum.

Assignment length: Can range from several sentences to several paragraphs

Connection to “writing to learn”: Students reinforce their knowledge of complex technical concepts and terminology by rearticulating definitions and assumptions to different audiences.

Examples:

Contributors:Lindsey Macdonald.
Summary:

This set of OWL resources aims to help engineering instructors and TAs create and assess a variety of short, low-overhead writing exercises for use in engineering courses. The primary focus here is on “writing to learn” assignments, which leverage writing to improve students’ conceptual understanding of technical concepts.

Writing exercises can be used in engineering courses to promote the deeper learning of technical material and build students’ writing skills. Writing in engineering courses gives students practice in articulating engineering concepts to different audiences and in engaging with technical communication genres. However, engineering instructors and TAs often struggle to incorporate writing into engineering classes due to a variety of challenges, including class size and the amount of time it takes to grade writing assignments. Additionally, the teaching of writing is an entire discipline of study with its own theories and practices that may not be accessible to engineering educators.

Explain-a-Problem Writing Prompts

Description: Explain-a-problem writing prompts ask students to explain their calculations in their own words. These exercises force students to think more deeply about their numeric work, beyond simply “plugging and chugging,” and can range from short descriptions to longer, formatted solutions. These writing prompts are easily added to any standard calculation problem, often simply with the addition of the words “Explain your solution.” They could also potentially be turned into mini-instructional manuals for how to solve certain types of problems.

When useful: Explain-a-problem writing prompts are useful any time the instructor wishes for students to think more deeply about their calculations and problem solving.

Audience considerations: Instructors or TAs might ask students to explain their calculations as if they were tutoring a friend or another student in the course. They could also frame their answers as instructions that might show up in a textbook.

Assignment length: Can range from several sentences to several paragraphs or a page

Connection to “writing to learn”: By explaining a numeric process, students are more likely to understand the theory behind the calculation, articulate how that process works, and then be able to apply it to different contexts and real-world situations.

Examples:

Contributors:Lindsey Macdonald.
Summary:

This set of OWL resources aims to help engineering instructors and TAs create and assess a variety of short, low-overhead writing exercises for use in engineering courses. The primary focus here is on “writing to learn” assignments, which leverage writing to improve students’ conceptual understanding of technical concepts.

Writing exercises can be used in engineering courses to promote the deeper learning of technical material and build students’ writing skills. Writing in engineering courses gives students practice in articulating engineering concepts to different audiences and in engaging with technical communication genres. However, engineering instructors and TAs often struggle to incorporate writing into engineering classes due to a variety of challenges, including class size and the amount of time it takes to grade writing assignments. Additionally, the teaching of writing is an entire discipline of study with its own theories and practices that may not be accessible to engineering educators.

How Stuff Works Writing Prompts

Description: Ask students to employ newly-learned concepts in explaining “how stuff works.” The engineering concept(s) can either be stated or left to the student to infer based on the object or process they are tasked to explain.

When useful: These writing prompts link concepts to the real world and give students practice in applying concepts to new situations.

Audience considerations: Instructors or TAs may advise students to write to a lay audience who is not familiar with engineering concepts or technical processes. They may also ask students to format their answers into steps or bullets or to include a diagram or infographic with their explanations.

Assignment length: Can range from several paragraphs to several pages

Connection to “writing to learn”: Students reinforce their knowledge of complex technical concepts and processes by explaining how they work to audiences who do not have technical knowledge. They must also consider how the concepts they learn in class apply to real processes and objects.

Examples:

Contributors:Lindsey Macdonald.
Summary:

This set of OWL resources aims to help engineering instructors and TAs create and assess a variety of short, low-overhead writing exercises for use in engineering courses. The primary focus here is on “writing to learn” assignments, which leverage writing to improve students’ conceptual understanding of technical concepts.

Writing exercises can be used in engineering courses to promote the deeper learning of technical material and build students’ writing skills. Writing in engineering courses gives students practice in articulating engineering concepts to different audiences and in engaging with technical communication genres. However, engineering instructors and TAs often struggle to incorporate writing into engineering classes due to a variety of challenges, including class size and the amount of time it takes to grade writing assignments. Additionally, the teaching of writing is an entire discipline of study with its own theories and practices that may not be accessible to engineering educators.

Real-World Example Writing Prompts

Description: Real-world writing prompts ask students to provide real-world examples of course- or concept-related material. Instructors or TAs may ask students to go out and observe something on campus or in the community, and then write about that example for homework or in class.

When useful: These questions are great for linking course content to the world outside the classroom, allowing students to engage with course content in a personal, often creative way.

Audience considerations: Instructors and TAs could ask students to envision this assignment as an example or explanation that might appear in a textbook, with their fellow classmates and other engineering students as their audience.

Assignment length: Can range from several paragraphs to several pages

Connection to “writing to learn”: By composing these explanations, students better understand how the material they learned in the course connects to real-world situations. Students will then be more successful in applying this material in contexts outside of the classroom.

Examples:

Contributors:Lindsey Macdonald.
Summary:

This set of OWL resources aims to help engineering instructors and TAs create and assess a variety of short, low-overhead writing exercises for use in engineering courses. The primary focus here is on “writing to learn” assignments, which leverage writing to improve students’ conceptual understanding of technical concepts.

Writing exercises can be used in engineering courses to promote the deeper learning of technical material and build students’ writing skills. Writing in engineering courses gives students practice in articulating engineering concepts to different audiences and in engaging with technical communication genres. However, engineering instructors and TAs often struggle to incorporate writing into engineering classes due to a variety of challenges, including class size and the amount of time it takes to grade writing assignments. Additionally, the teaching of writing is an entire discipline of study with its own theories and practices that may not be accessible to engineering educators.

Design-a-Problem Writing Prompts

Description: Design-a-problem writing prompts have students devising their own homework problem and solution. For these types of prompts, writing is employed in both the crafting of the problem statement—a short description of an issue that needs attention—as well as the solution (if required). There is often a creative element in crafting these prompts, which many students enjoy.

For more information on problem statements, you can consult the OWL’s SURF Workshop Resources on Problem Statements.

When useful: These are challenging exercises that force students to deeply understand course material, in much the same way that teaching forces a deeper understanding of the content.

Audience considerations: Instructors and TAs may advise students to approach this assignment with fellow classmates, other engineering students, or K-12 students learning engineering basics as their audiences. 

Assignment length: Can range from one page to several pages

Connection to “writing to learn”: By crafting these problems, students take on the role of a teacher, and they must be able to understand and articulate concepts before asking others to engage with the material and solve problems.

Examples:

Contributors:Lindsey Macdonald.
Summary:

This set of OWL resources aims to help engineering instructors and TAs create and assess a variety of short, low-overhead writing exercises for use in engineering courses. The primary focus here is on “writing to learn” assignments, which leverage writing to improve students’ conceptual understanding of technical concepts.

Writing exercises can be used in engineering courses to promote the deeper learning of technical material and build students’ writing skills. Writing in engineering courses gives students practice in articulating engineering concepts to different audiences and in engaging with technical communication genres. However, engineering instructors and TAs often struggle to incorporate writing into engineering classes due to a variety of challenges, including class size and the amount of time it takes to grade writing assignments. Additionally, the teaching of writing is an entire discipline of study with its own theories and practices that may not be accessible to engineering educators.

Open-Ended Design Writing Prompts

Description: For this assignment, students must design a device or solution associated with a stated design objective. The writing component of the assignment lies in the explanation of the design, often in the form of a design manual or report.

When useful: Design prompts challenge students to both be creative as they invent their own designs and engage with complex technical content as they explain their designs.

Audience considerations: Instructors or TAs may ask students to envision their audience as fellow engineers who must either build or work with their design.

Assignment length: Can range from one page to several pages

Connection to “writing to learn”: If students are writing to other engineers, they will have to engage with technical terminology and learn how to use it within technical communication genres intended for experts in the field.

Examples:

Contributors:Lindsey Macdonald.
Summary:

This set of OWL resources aims to help engineering instructors and TAs create and assess a variety of short, low-overhead writing exercises for use in engineering courses. The primary focus here is on “writing to learn” assignments, which leverage writing to improve students’ conceptual understanding of technical concepts.

Writing exercises can be used in engineering courses to promote the deeper learning of technical material and build students’ writing skills. Writing in engineering courses gives students practice in articulating engineering concepts to different audiences and in engaging with technical communication genres. However, engineering instructors and TAs often struggle to incorporate writing into engineering classes due to a variety of challenges, including class size and the amount of time it takes to grade writing assignments. Additionally, the teaching of writing is an entire discipline of study with its own theories and practices that may not be accessible to engineering educators.

Writing tips for students

Prewriting Exercises

Asking questions: Ask your students to consider the following questions before they begin writing:

These questions will help your students consider how they should frame their answers and what sort of content/language they need to include.

Brainstorming: Before your students start responding to writing prompts, have them first jot down all the ideas that come to their mind. They can freewrite or make a list. 

Organizing thoughts: It might be helpful for students to first outline or map out all their main points. This can take many different forms, including a traditional outline or a diagram/idea map. A traditional outline will help students develop a specific structure while a diagram or idea map will help them to begin organizing their thoughts and thinking about how all their ideas fit together.

You can find an example of an idea map and strategies for developing effective outlines in the following OWL resources: 

Additionally, for more information on pre-writing, consult “Invention: Starting the Writing Process” and “Introduction to Prewriting: Invention”.

Quick revision and editing tips before turning in assignments

Content revision:

For more information on topic sentences and transitions, consult the OWL’s resources on paragraphs and transitional devices.

Sentence-level editing:

For more information on common sentence level errors, consult the OWL’s “Finding Common Errors” page.

Contributors:Lindsey Macdonald.
Summary:

This set of OWL resources aims to help engineering instructors and TAs create and assess a variety of short, low-overhead writing exercises for use in engineering courses. The primary focus here is on “writing to learn” assignments, which leverage writing to improve students’ conceptual understanding of technical concepts.

Writing exercises can be used in engineering courses to promote the deeper learning of technical material and build students’ writing skills. Writing in engineering courses gives students practice in articulating engineering concepts to different audiences and in engaging with technical communication genres. However, engineering instructors and TAs often struggle to incorporate writing into engineering classes due to a variety of challenges, including class size and the amount of time it takes to grade writing assignments. Additionally, the teaching of writing is an entire discipline of study with its own theories and practices that may not be accessible to engineering educators.

Assessment and feedback of engineering writing

The assessment of student writing in engineering courses can vary between simpler analytic rubrics to more complex, holistic rubrics. When “writing-to-learn” is the primary objective of your assignment, a rubric is recommended that focuses more on the technical merit of the student’s content and less on the grammar and mechanics. Additionally, simpler rubrics have the advantage of being quick and easy to apply, which can be necessary for large lecture classes.

Each of the examples below is merely a template; to tailor a rubric to your specific situation, you can change or add categories, change point values, and edit the descriptions of what you expect at each level of achievement.

Rubric Best Practices

Examples of rubrics suitable for engineering write-to-learn assignments

Simplest—holistic rubric: Writing assignments get a single score based on an overall assessment:

   3 – Effective

   Technical answer has an appropriate level of detail and correct          usage of technical terms and concepts. Response is clearly and concisely written.

   2 – Partially Effective

Technical answer has minor mistakes in logic or usage of technical terms and concepts.

   1 – Ineffective

Technical answer has major mistakes in logic or usage of technical terms and concepts.

 

Pros:

Cons:

More detailed—analytic rubric: Different aspects of the written responses are each assigned a point value.

Category

Score

Demonstrated conceptual knowledge

/3

Quality of support / explanation

/3

All aspects or parts of question addressed

/2

Spelling and grammar

/1

Documentation and Sources

/1

Total

/10


Demonstrated conceptual knowledge
: The student has demonstrated that they understand the concept(s) that they were tasked to write about.

Quality of support/explanation: The student has provided sufficient evidence for their answer and articulated ideas, concepts, or processes using language suitable for a given audience.

All aspects or parts of question addressed: The student has responded fully to the prompt and answered every part of the question.

Spelling and grammar: The student has proofread and shown an attempt to boost their professional ethos by addressing grammatical and mechanical issues.

Documentation and sources: The student has cited sources according to the given documentation standards.

Pros:

Cons:

Most detailed—analytic rubric: Different aspects of written responses are each assigned a point value based on specific descriptions of each grade division.

 

Category

Excellent (3)

Acceptable (2)

Unacceptable (1)

Conceptual knowledge

Technically effective; writer applies concepts and terms accurately.

Mostly effective and accurate; might have small errors in understanding or applying terms.

Technical content is not effective; concepts and/or terms do not demonstrate understanding.

Writing content

Writing style is clear, logical, and concise; student has developed their professional ethos by proofreading

Writing style is generally readable; student may not have sufficiently proofread

Writing style is difficult to read, with many distracting errors that detract from the student’s professional ethos.

 

Pros:

Cons:

Tips to streamline the grading process for written work: